Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, September 21, 2002
      ( 9/21/2002 08:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“INTERCOURSE THE PENGUIN!” – The outlandishly smart hero of Fox’s new John Doe (Dominic Purcell) knows everything but his own name. A super savant with the ability to learn anything instantly (put him behind the controls of a helicopter and he’s quickly able to fly it in pursuit of a childnapper), Doe wakes up naked and amnesiac on an island off Seattle. The only physical indication that he’s somehow been tampered with by Forces Unknown: a wingding-shaped scar on his shoulder. Could be a birthmark, he theorizes, which makes us wonder if that mega-brain of his is all it’s cracked up to be.

Still, Doe’s smarts come in handy. Able to handicap both horses and the stock market, he makes himself comfortably wealthy in a day. So, naturally, he gets a job playing Rogers & Hart in a piano bar run by veteran gravel voice William Forsythe. Wouldn’t you?

Outside of that little, you know, memory thing, Doe has another small problem: he’s color blind and only sees the world around him in grainy black and white – except when he doesn’t. When he catches a TV newscast about a kidnapped girl, the guy’s able to see the girl in tinted color. Convinced she somehow must contain a clue to what’s happened to him, Doe goes to the Seattle police, where of course you know he’s gonna win over a skeptical detective (John Marshall Jones).

Our hero finds the little girl, but she offers no clues that’ll help him. Doe’s writers have no intention of answering any of the big questions now. Their ploy will be to dribble out tantalizing hints throughout the season, end with a big cliffhanger that promises to “answer everything,” then feint away from that promise in season two. We’ve played this game before, and it’s a tricky one. Hold off too long (a la Chris Carter), and you start to lose viewers.

Makes things easier if you’ve got an appealing lead, of course, though from one ep I’m not sure whether Purcell fits that label or not. It doesn’t help that the show’s writers have given him an excessive amount of flat affect voiceovers in the pilot (yeah, we get it: you don’t know who you are!). Now that we’ve got the premise building out of the way, perhaps the guy’ll be able to relax into his part.

Still, you’ve gotta wonder if Doe’s creators haven’t placed too much on one plot thread. Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which premiered just before Doe, has a character who’s been mysteriously tampered with, too - but she’s only one of a half dozen subplots. Doe’s writers are hoping to keep viewers hooked with its secondary mysteries. On the basis of the show’s first case, I’m not sure how effective this’ll be. When your amateur detective is able to immediately pull the exact number of purple Impalas in the Seattle area from the recesses of his brain, you begin to suspect we’ll be subjected to regular variations of the ol’ Batman/Riddler gimme (where the World’s Greatest Detective is able to solve the taunting villain’s riddles using Gotham City knowledge we’re not privy to). When it comes to preternaturally smart ‘n’ damaged detectives, I'll take Adrian Monk.

Doe’s premiere ends with our hero sitting in a morgue, telling his tale to an anonymous corpse (hence, the voice-overs). Hopefully that li'l gimmick is just a one-shot deal. It’d be a pain in the ass if Doe had to sneak into the morgue weekly just to get the show started. What’ll he do if the cops don’t bring in any John/Jane Does that night?
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Friday, September 20, 2002
      ( 9/20/2002 03:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“WILL HE SAVE THE WEST . . .OR RUIN IT?” – Mark Evanier has posted a good, thoughtful note on comic books that were cancelled (or nearly cancelled) prematurely: the piece gets to the gist of the always fragile relationship between creativity and bottom line thinking (though Mark makes the valid point that many "bottom-liners" often operate under far less objective guidelines than they claim). And for the record, I still miss Bat Lash.
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      ( 9/20/2002 12:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

TWENTY YEARS OF REPEATS – Watched the premiere of WB's Do Over last night: one of those sitcoms you can’t imagine extending through a full season, let alone lasting a second year – its premise isn’t sufficiently open-ended. The story of a slogging thirtysomething who gets transported back to high school through one of the strangest plot devices in history (his sister zaps his greasy hair with a paramedic’s paddle), the show is a garbled blend of The Wonder Years and Back to the Future. (Tom Wilson, Marty McFly’s nemesis in the s-f trilogy, even has a small role in the pilot.) Hero Joel Larsen (Penn Badgly), though trapped in a fourteen-year-old body, still has adult awareness and a knowledge of what’s to come. He uses both to try and avoid the mistakes he made in life the first time.

The show had a few good chuckles: like when Joel plops down in front of the television and realizes “every show for the next twenty years is a repeat!” But there’s a creepy side to it, too. We see young Joel lusting after the unattainable freshman cheerleader, and it’s not just a young teen doing this, it’s also a grown man. If Back to the Future’s premise comically flirted with Oedipal themes, this show ventures into even more distressing sexual arenas. All in the name of family entertainment!

Because the show is set in 1981, we get a plethora of candy-coated new wave songs on the soundtrack. Most of these are out of time, but since they’re being played over the action, you could argue that they're meant to represent our hero’s mushed-up memory of 80’s music. One indefensible musical anachronism: Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” is heard on a clock radio, three years ahead of its release. (Took me two minutes w./ Google to track down the single's release year – what's the writers' excuse?) Of course, it’s possible that the whole back-in-time thing is an electroshock-driven hallucination – in which case, never mind. . .
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      ( 9/20/2002 08:11:00 AM ) Bill S.  

IT’S BAT-TASTIC! – Four months late, I’ve finally posted my “Comic Book Catch-Up” take on DC’s Bat books: the entirety of this exceedingly fanboyish project can be accessed here. (Next up: Marvel’s Daredevil – which, hopefully, won’t take as long to complete!)
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Thursday, September 19, 2002
      ( 9/19/2002 09:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SCOTTY HARD-ON – The covers of Evan Dorkin’s Dork #10 (Slave Labor Graphics) pretty much encapsulate this pitch dark humor comic: the front shows an isolated comic book shop in flames and attacked by a mob; the back has a childishly rendered cartoon cat, brandishing a knife and telling us, “We all die alone.” Not the book to buy if you really wanna lift your spirits. . .

The new ish is a typical grab bag: crowd-pleasing Eltingville strip, some short gags plus a neat collegiate goof-off entitled “Mighty Carl Jung,” an autobiographical reminiscence and an extended Life Is Shit strip of sardonic vignettes from the “Invisible College of Secret Knowledge.” I’m none too enthused with that last – an idea that Dorkin played out at least one book ago – but the rest of the title is plenty sharp. For me, the centerpiece strip is “How to Get Your Ass Kicked,” wherein the cartoonist diligently dissects moments from his own childhood, showing how his verbal impulsivity regularly led to getting his butt whupped. (Unfortunately, I can relate.) Dorkin is especially good at catching male dick waving gone awry – particularly funny when you consider how pathetic the guys waving their weewees usually are.

Which brings us to Eltingville, of course. Dorkin’s crew of comic book geeks is justly famed for the way that cartoonist so cuttingly renders fan-boy obsessiveness and testerone-fueled aggression. This latest outing shows our heroes in atypical victorious mode, taking on an unctuous HSN type hawking ersatz comics collectibles and driving him into an on-air nervous breakdown. (The fact that the items Scott is hawking are bogus is largely irrelevant to the two comic book clubbers – what matters to them is the fact that he’s mispronouncing names on the air.) A fun strip which once again has me wishing that The Cartoon Network was willing to spring for an ongoing Welcome to Eltingville series.

Dorkin and collaborator Sarah Dyer did get a pilot on the air (it’s worth tracking down). But as the cartoonist himself notes on the inside cover, chances for a longterm series are unfortunately bleak. Consolation prize: a full Eltingville book is reportedly in the works. I know I’ll be buying two copies. (Gotta have one to bag in mint condition, right?) And for now, we’ve got Dork #10 – teed-off cartooning at its finest.

NOTE: Evan & Sarah have a website you can reach here.
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      ( 9/19/2002 07:26:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE SIGNPOST UP AHEAD – I grew up on the original Twilight Zone. When I was really young and the show was in its first season, I remember desperately wanting to watch it but being sent to bed instead. Listening to that perennially evocative theme song through my bedroom door, I just knew I was missing some of the neatest television ever. When I was finally allowed to stay up and watch (first ep I remember seeing as a kid: the one with the plane that got stranded in time), my suspicions were confirmed. This was the greatest show ever!

At least until the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller, that is.

Like plenty of old fans, I’ve watched the show in rerun since. While many of the episodes crawl and betray their early teevee origins, at their best, you can still see why the show is beloved. Creator Rod Serling (and, more consistently, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) did something unique for the day: taking a despised mode of genre fiction and adapting it into thought-provoking television. (It’s easy to forget that s-f was primarily thought to be kid’s stuff back then.) Since the show’s debut, we’ve seen a variety of anthology attempts at replicating what Serling wrought. Some have their fans (Outer Limits, Tales from the Dark Side); others have slipped into obscurity (Darkroom, anyone?). None of ‘em carry the cachet of Twlight Zone.

Watched the premiere of UPN’s Zone last night. And all I can say is that the producers must be ecstatic over the fact that Family Affair debuted this season: the title of Most Pointless Remake has already been grabbed, thanks. This new TZ isn’t bad, mind you, just sort of hohum – made me long for Dark Side’s low-budget vigor.

The hour-long show was divided into two separate stories. Perhaps I’ve seen too many twist ending fantasies, but both tales were so obviously handled that both my wife and I could see the endings five minutes into the story. First tale involves a gated community for families with troubled kids (soon as you see the neighbors sobbing over a newly planted tree, you can see where the story’s bratty teenage daughter is heading); second gives us Jason Alexander as Death in the midst of a mid-“life” crisis. The actor has a few good lines, and there’s a nicely squirmy scene involving undying burn victims, but, c’mon, they’ve already lensed Death Takes A Holiday. Twice!

Forrest Whittaker is the series host, so I don’t feel too badly wishing that this series dies a quick death because the guy seems to be working as an actor, anyway. Not to put the man down or anything – Bird and Rage in Harlem showed that he’s got significant acting chops – but the guy’s too of-this-world to be an effective fantasy series host. Stiffed-lipped Rod was a host. Boris Karloff was a host. So's George Clinton. Forrest is the guy who turns the ignition key when the jeep is running. . .
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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
      ( 9/18/2002 07:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A WAY LATE CLARIFICATION – Months ago, I was lamenting the cancellation of Futurama. Turns out I was premature with my eulogizing. While Fox has not bought further eps, the series' crappy timeslot led to a slew of entries getting shoved aside last year by late-running football games. This season, the net plans to plug the previously unseen ‘uns in the still-crappy Sunday slot ‘ til they all get used up. Slapdash programming at best – but at least we get to see the shows.
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Tuesday, September 17, 2002
      ( 9/17/2002 11:13:00 AM ) Bill S.  

YOU AND YOUR GHOST – In the midst of the political umbrage being aimed at Steve Earle’s upcoming Jerusalem disc, I’ve been getting my poli-outrage fix from another reliable source, the Mekons.

The band of Brit post-punkers has been producing smart, passionate prog statements in music for decades now. OOOH (Quarterstick Records) is the latest of the group’s sporadic “real releases” (as opposed to a collection of b-sides and demos – of which there are many in the Mekons’ catalog). It’s a darn good ‘un, too. Pissed-off and powerless, marginalized by events that have turned “hate into the new love,” all that Waco brother Jon Langford & peers can do is sing about their understandable despair.

Over the years the band has moved from its raucous punk roots into a rough-hewn country/folk mode that owes as much to Beggar’s Banquet Rolling Stones as it does Sandinista-era Clash. The newest Mekons’ may lack the fired-up sound of the group’s big label release, Rock ‘N’ Roll or Retreat from Memphis, but it catches a piece of this current moment better than just about anything else I’ve been listening to lately:
’Cos there’s no peace
On this terrible shore
Everyday is a battle
How we still love the war.
Only the Mekons would craft a gospelly song that strives to incite the audience to “take His name in vain” – not to be outrageous in the mode of Johnny Rotten bragging he’s an anti-Christ, but just because it’s one of the few things left to say. “Our dissent,” Langford later moans over Steve Goulding’s diddleying drums, “throw another log on the fire.” The Mekons are unafraid to stare into the conflagration, acknowledging their fear and confusion.

As a band, the presentday group favors guit/fiddle statements (the latter occasionally reminiscent of John Cale), periodic spoken word experiments and more traditional old-fashioned country (album closer “Stonehead” opens with a weird acappella chant then turns into a country waltz). Many of the stand-out tracks are either group singalongs (“Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”) or solos by Langford or the unvarnishedly melodic Sally Timms.

“It’s not over ‘til I say so,” Langford sings in the wonderfully titled “Bob Hope and Charity,” but this isolated moment of assertiveness is ambiguous at best. OOOH (the title is both an acronym for “Out of Our Heads” and an evocation of the harmonies that are all over this disc) is the best release to come from this scrappy unit in years. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the only audience that’ll care about this fact is the cadre of fans who’ve kept the group viable in cultland. Music this grown-up and dissipated isn't just out of the band’s big giant head, it’s also out of step w./ today’s commercial & political clime.
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      ( 9/17/2002 08:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THOSE DAMN THIEVING SQUIRRELS – Caught The Sopranos season premiere Sunday (once WB starts running new Angels in the same time slot, we’ll be shifting our regular viewing to one of the myriad alternates, however). The opener wasn't as brisk or startling as earlier season premieres: not just from a lack of newness but a sense that creator David Chase and co. are working overtime at undercutting their characters’ minimal capacity for joy.

We’ve been moving in this direction ever since our hero first had his duck-induced panic attack. When your primary pallet is stress & depression – sex & comedy & violence offering just temporary respite from same – it’s a short trek to the Slough of Despair. As season four threatens to follow its darker path, the show’s writers are clearly gonna be challenged to keep things entertaining. (More scenes like the comic dialog between Tony and the recently elevated Bobby about Nostradamus will help.) So how far can a popular series venture into pure despair without driving off its core audience? Got a feeling that we’re about to find out.
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      ( 9/17/2002 06:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THEY CALL IT GEEK – One more reason why music geek Andy Zax is The Man: faced with a Nick Lowe question on last night’s Beat the Geeks that he didn’t know the answer to (it pertained to a Lowe song covered on The Bodyguard soundtrack), Zax took advantage of his air time to call for a CD reissue of Lowe’s classic disc Pure Pop for Now People instead. (Got the import that was released in ’89 under its British title, Jesus of Cool – but aside from its better title, the import release isn’t as solidly programmed as the U.S. version.) Good for Andy! Other pop music fans may hold the title for a week, but Zax remains the Once and Future Music Geek.
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Monday, September 16, 2002
      ( 9/16/2002 10:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SEND ME A POSTCARD, DROP ME A LINE – My alter ego Wilson Barbers has been writing about fat themed collectibles for several years now: the biggest piece of his collection is a batch of comic postcards dealing with the topic. Some new cards have just been posted on the Barbers site, including one done by long-running newspaper cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo. (If you're looking it, it's on page two of the general Fat Cards section.)

Hatlo’s strip was one of those “human foible” comics that frequently went for the obvious, but I’ve always enjoyed his drawing style, even on his kid strip “Little Iodine.” According to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, his creation is still running in some papers. But I haven’t seen it in ages. I know that the guy's postcards go over well with comic card collectors, perhaps because they do such a good job capturing their era.
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      ( 9/16/2002 08:26:00 AM ) Bill S.  

STILLSON RUNS DEEP – The season finale of The Dead Zone was broadcast last night; despite U.S.A.’s promos, not “all questions” were answered. They did, however, finally bring in the plotline that’s the crux of the Stephen King source (after making at least one passing reference to the character early in the season): hero Johnny Smith’s apocalyptic premonition sparked by a handshake with psycho politico Greg Stillson (all-purpose bad-guy Sean Patrick Flanery, best remembered in these quarters as Dennis Quaid's nemesis from Dreamscape). This introduction of a new plot thread makes for even more of a cliffhanger to those who know the novel (the book does not end well for Johnny). But now that they’ve introduced it, I’ve gotta wonder how they’ll be able to fill a second season of this show without indulging in a slew of bogus delaying tactics.

UPDATE – Jim Treacher corrects me in the comments section below: I got my [blank] Patricks mixed up. Flanery didn't appear in Dreamscape; that was David Patrick Kelly. Always fact-check your movie credits, kids!
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      ( 9/16/2002 08:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

COUNTER ACTION - Of course, I spent part of my weekend web time periodically checking out the new blog counter. Was surprised to see that my passing, somewhat dismissive reference to the Pop Sucks Tour brought so many to this site: bet a few of ‘em were pissed to see I'm not a Korn fan.
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Sunday, September 15, 2002
      ( 9/15/2002 09:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

OCD COMMENT OF THE DAY – Don’t have too much to say about the second Coldplay album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, that hasn’t already been covered here: except to note that I’ve been playing it often and enjoying it more over the last few weeks – and that second cut “In My Place” is pleasingly redolent of Travis’ “Driftwood.” (Should also mention – so I can cement my reputation as an artless pop-rock boob – that I personally prefer Radiohead’s The Bends to OK Computer.)

But that’s not what I really wanna talk about in this space.

Am I the only one who gets thoroughly bugged by CD booklets using glossy black pages – pages that are guaranteed to get smeared the minute you try to thumb through ‘em? (And while I’m at it, I might as well mention slick comic books w./ black borders, too.) Ran into this on the booklet to Coldplay's Rush. First time I opened it, I left a big ol’ thumbprint on the edge of page three.

I know. Black gloss looks classy & arty & serious – and I’m a slob for eating a cinnamon Danish in the study. But (geezer nostalgia alert) I remember when you could sort weed on the inside of a gatefold album cover and not mess the thing up! (Not that I – harrumph! – ever did this, of course.) At the price of CDs, you’d think they could regularly use booklets that don’t make us collector types wanna pull out a set of tweezers just to turn the frigging pages. . .
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      ( 9/15/2002 06:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THINK I'LL EVER GET THE HANG OF THIS BLOGGING BIZNESS? – Yeah, more than six months in, and I finally add a counter to this site. Do I really wanna know this?
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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